“That which does not kill us maker us stronger.” Friedrich Nietzsche
A cliche, but more true than you think.
Stress (the grey pointy things) provoke adaptation in the antifragile system (the black line). As a a result it gets stronger (thicker) and better able to handle the same stressors. Illustration by me, done on Remarkable2.
Objects are fragile
Most man-made things are fragile. The more stress you put on then, the less they last until they break.
The more miles on a car, the higher chance of failure. From one point it's so degraded, it's not worth repairing.
The same applies to all objects with mechanical moving parts: a bike, a drawer, a mechanical clock and so on. Objects with fewer mechanical moving parts, which are more electronic, last longer. An electric car usually lasts longer than a fossil-fuel car. But they still degrade the more stress you put on them.
A Tesla will break down without repair and maintenance. All buildings will eventually crumble without repairs. The chair or bed on which you are sitting now will break.
Man-made systems all break down with use. A road network can take only so much traffic until it becomes so congested that it stops completely. A hard-drive can take a limited number of writing and erasing.
Some objects are more fragile, some are are more resistant. But they all become more frail from exposure to stressors.
The natural world is different.
Living organisms are antifragile
Small stresses do not degrade then, they trigger adaptations. Living organisms become stronger to better handle these stresses in the future.
The easiest example is strength training. The more you lift, the stronger you become.
When you have muscle soreness, it is because the exercise killed cells in those muscles. The pain is from the inflammation created by this damage.
In response, your body produces new muscle cells and strengthens the existing ones (through more numerous and efficient mitochondria).
Next time you do the movement that caused soreness, your muscles will be more capable of it. They have adapted to it. They have grown stronger.
The mechanism of antifragility is hormesis
Hormesis refers to adaptive responses of biological systems to moderate environmental or self-imposed challenges through which the system improves its functionality and/or tolerance to more severe challenges. - Nature
When your muscles suffer from exercise, and then grow stronger, that is hormesis.
Hormesis is not just about muscles. All systems in the body have varying degrees of adaptability. Runners' bones get stronger. Cardiovascular training makes the heart stronger. Eating small amounts of poison creates (limited) resistance to that poison. Stretching increases mobility.
Hormesis is not only about the body, but the mind and the "heart" as well.
School and learning are stressors. In the right dose they lead to new skills and knowledge. Your mind adapts and becomes better at those cognitive tasks.
This adaptation is not so different from muscles growing better at an exercise. Your brain grows new connections between neurons and recruits new neurons when it learns a skill.
In emotions we are antifragile.
"That which does not kill us makes us stronger."refers mainly to events that trigger negative emotions.
Subject yourself to a specific emotional stress and it will become less stressful.
People doing extreme feats, like solo climber Alex Honold, show how far this adaptation can go. Neuroimaging shows he feels very little fear for many situations related to climbing that would make you and I tremble.
Hormesis is limited. The dose makes the poison.
If you break your leg, it does not repair stronger the next day. If you go through too much trauma at once you might remain emotionally crippled. A full dose of deadly poison will kill you, not make you more resistant to that poison.
Hormesis happens when the stressor is small enough act to cause permanent damage, but large enough to signal adaptation.
Too much damage can overwhelm you ability to adapt and cause damage. But if you take it gradually big changes are possible.
Nobody goes from no-running to running ultra-marathons for example. But almost anybody can train up to running ultramarathons if they take it slow and gradual over years. The more they subject the body to the stress of running, the stronger the body becomes.
This antifragility is not by chance.
The evolutionary reason for antifragility
In the natural world every living is in a competition to pass on its genes. This is achieved through survival, reproduction and the reproduction of offspring. Those who fare better make offspring that are more like them and so the trait proliferate. Those who fare worse die off and their traits disappear.
Antifragility is a key trait for evolutionary fitness.
It is a shifting, dynamic world. The planet changes. The environment changes.
All the organisms change. They evolve to increase their evolutionary fitness for their environment.
If we were like man-made objects, this constant change would be awful for us. Fragile systems have a limited range in which they can function well. Take them outside of this range and they break down quickly.
Antifragile systems grow stronger in change. They fare great at natural selection.
Humans are antifragile because otherwise they would not have survived. But this antifragility has a cost.
The cost of antifragility
An antifragile system thrives under adversity. It degrades under the absence of adversity.
Without the stimulation of the right kind of stress, the human body and mind decay.
If I push myself too hard, it is bad. But if I don’t push myself enough, it is also bad.
Comfort is our enemy.
We are suffering a worldwide epidemic of comfort damage.
A couch potato develops many health problems, including depression and death. Lying in bed feels great, but bedridden patients quickly atrophy and die without extensive medical procedures. Astronauts workout extensively to try to compensate for the absence of the stress of gravity.
It’s not just about physical stress. The largest longevity research, the Telmar study, found that a life of hedonistic leisure is shorter than one of working towards a difficult goal with challenges and risks.
Some of the unhappiest people are those who achieved their goals and have no more challenges to overcome. The brain produces new neurons daily but without cognitive effort that needs then, they die. Existing neural connections fade away if unused.
Humans thrive in pain.
Without the pain of dealing with something that is hard and challenging, we wither away.
Much of modern society is about making life as painless and comfortable as possible. This feels good in the moment, but makes us weak and frail. It makes our lives shorter and more miserable.
Solution: the right kind of discomfort
The solution is simple.
Bring back adversity, pain. The antifragile human body and mind will adapt and thrive.
Much of the ideal life I believe comes from deliberate discomfort.
Physical exercise is a pain. It’s unpleasant and difficult.
It’s also an elixir of youth. It prolongs life and improves its quality in all dimensions.
Confronting unknown challenges keeps your mind sharp and your body healthy. It allows new neurons to thrive instead of withering away. It makes you strong and supple. It hones skills. It makes you adaptable and balanced. It prevents anxiety and depression. It gives you energy.
What can you do?
Look at your life. Be honest. How easy is your life?
Is all the crap you complain about really a problem? Or is it of little consequence?
If you don’t have any real adversity and unknown challenges, find them.
Do right now
Think of something uncomfortable you can do in the next five days.
Examples. Try a sports feat that feels really hard or even impossible. Have a difficult conversation that you have been avoiding. Fast for 24 hours. Live without a smartphone or computer for 24 hours. Talk to a stranger. Attempt a new skill. Do something risky.
Then do it.
Seek pain to live well.
A fun corollary from this idea is that masochism might have evolutionary value. I refer to the general term of masochism: deriving pleasure from pain, not the sexual connotation specifically.
Seeking pain would often create hormesis and thus be a beneficial behaviour for an antifragile system.
They say long distance runners or cyclists or cross fitters are masochists. This is an euphemism.
But maybe it's true. There is a special kind of pleasure in the pain of hard exercise. The activity itself is beneficial so maybe the masochism is as well. Maybe other types of masochism also led to beneficial hormesis.
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Previous Ideal Life entries:
References and further reading:
Antifragile - Nassim Taleb
Lifespan - David Sinclair
Behave - Robert Sapolsky
The Cancer Code - Dr. Jason Fung
The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins